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Cracking California In Two - Redux

CALIFORNIA has always had a dual personality: North versus South, urban versus rural, rich versus poor. Periodically, these two Californias crack along a political fault line and it seems to be happening again with the latest effort to split the most populous state in two.Leading the charge is state Assemblyman Stan Statham (R) of Redding, who believes (along with many county supervisors north of San Francisco) that the state capitol is dominated by big-city politicians and unmanageable bureaucrats from the southern half of the state. Mr. Statham proposes that the northern 27 counties (out of a total of 58) become the 51st state. "I have participated in 15 state budgets, and each one has been progressively worse for rural California," says Statham. "Frankly, with California's population distribution, northern California has no chance of getting fair or equal representation. While I as one assemblyman represent nine counties, almost 20 percent of all of California's land, 28 Assembly members [out of 80] represent Los Angeles County alone. The last governor to come from north of Sacramento was James Gillett in 1907, and I don't thi nk anybody here believes northern California will ever have another governor." There are several reasons for this discontent, says political scientist Irving Schiffman of California State University at Chico. As in much of the West, the bulk of new population has settled in urban areas. Also, the state constitution was changed in the 1970s to reduce the relative political clout of rural counties. Previously, no county could have more than one state senator and no senator could represent more than three counties. "That gave rural counties a nice bit of influence in the state legislature," says professor Schiffman. "When they lost that, things from their point of view went down pretty quickly." Then, Californians in 1978 passed Proposition 13, the property-tax limitation measure. Rural counties, which already had relatively low property taxes, were prevented from increasing revenues from this source. Meanwhile, according to Statham and many rural officials, lawmakers in Sacramento kept increasing the size of government, including state-imposed services counties were supposed to pay for. In recent years several counties in the north have nearly gone bankrupt, and Lassen County has threatened to secede and join up with Nevada or simply dissolve itself and be absorbed by its neighboring counties. There's a long history of this kind of thing, including more than 25 legislative proposals over the years to split California into two or three states. In 1941, a semi-serious state of "Jefferson" was created out of northern California and southern Oregon. Judge John L. Childs of Crescent City was inaugurated as governor, boosters set up roadblocks at Yreka, and it was announced that "patriotic Jeffersonians intend to secede every Thursday until further notice." The movement dissolved three days later wh en the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. But there are serious issues at stake here, says Dr. Schiffman, as witnessed by California's recent struggle with a $14 billion budget deficit. "It seems that the service-demand curve is rising faster than the income curve," he says. "The state really needs some serious fiscal restructuring in order to protect and help local governments and also to protect the economy." Will assemblyman Statham's effort succeed? It would first have to get by the state legislature (already dominated by lawmakers from San Francisco south), Gov. Pete Wilson (who is from San Diego), and the US Congress (where those representing the rest of the country presumably have no interest in seeing another two US Senators from California). Supporters admit the exercise is more in the nature of a cry for help. "At the very least, this should serve as a wake-up call to make Sacramento realize that what it's doing very frankly is strangling local government," says Ray Narbaitz, who runs Statham's district office in Redding. "People are buried under a wave of unelected government that they flat don't want, need, or can afford, and we have to make some real reforms in the way that the state of California is run or we're going to be looking at m ajor budget deficits forever."